Iowa is renowned for its rich farmland and gentle, rolling meadows. It offers some of the best homesteading opportunities in the country, but this Midwestern gem isn’t entirely without issues.
So, what should you expect? Read on for a complete guide to homesteading in Iowa, including vital information about the climate, agricultural conditions, and how to make money from your homestead.
Is Homesteading Legal in Iowa?
Homesteading is legal in Iowa. The state supports rural residents and has many laws favoring those who make their living from agriculture. Farming and growing are integral here, with many rural residents growing gardens and raising livestock.
Iowa Homesteading Laws
Iowa homestead statutes prevent some creditors from seizing homesteads in the event of landowner bankruptcy. The law protects homesteads of up to one half-acre within city limits and forty acres in rural areas. Even if your homestead is too small to qualify for creditor protection, a statewide homestead tax exemption could still apply.
This law exempts the actual tax levied against the first $4,850 of a homestead’s value, which will vary depending on location within the state. Iowa has additional credits available for homesteading seniors above the age of 65 and several farm, barn, and orchard exemptions that homesteaders of all ages could potentially benefit from.
Is Going Off-Grid Legal in Iowa?
Going off-grid is mostly legal here, though some Iowa off-grid laws can present issues depending on what you’re hoping to accomplish. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Iowa has strict zoning laws in many places that may limit off-grid power systems. Ordinances vary greatly depending on the type of zone you’re in, with Rural Residential (RR) zones and Agricultural (AG) zones having the least restrictions.
- Iowa doesn’t have statewide laws preventing residents from disconnecting utilities, but some municipalities may require connections where possible.
- Alternative energy systems are feasible, but some types are more accessible. For example, solar energy is widely available and encouraged, but wind energy is highly regulated, and these systems are more challenging to build and maintain lawfully.
- Most Iowa residents cannot build or install off-grid electric power systems themselves. Unless you have a qualified homestead and secure a homeowner’s electrical permit, you must hire an electrician.
Buying Land to Homestead in Iowa
Iowa has some great tracts for living off the land, but those wishing to settle here must focus on availability and affordability first.
Cost and Availability
According to USDA statistics for 2022, IA cropland is valued at $9,350 per acre on average. Pastureland is around $3,350 per acre, while farm real estate averages $9,400 per acre. Why so expensive?
Iowa has some of the best farmland in the nation, and much of it has been occupied and worked for generations. When farmland becomes available, it doesn’t come cheap. Despite this, Iowa still has thousands of acres for sale, including undeveloped land and urban parcels.
The state even has some small parcels of free land available for residents who meet specific criteria. It could behoove hopeful homesteaders to buy non-ag land and build from scratch rather than rely on more costly preexisting systems. Whatever you decide, note that Iowa’s property tax average is 1.5%, making it one of the top ten highest in the nation.
Quality and Accessibility
Iowa’s land is generally very high quality due to its rich soil and solid infrastructure. However, anyone buying land here should still consider the following:
- Soil quality: Agribusiness has been booming in IA for a long time, and over-farming can have devastating effects on soil quality. If you find a parcel with a price too good to be true, have the soil quality tested to ensure you’re not buying a barren tract.
- Restrictions: Iowa has strict zoning laws that vary by location. Check the local courthouse to ensure you know what category your land falls under and if you can build and live how you want there.
- Accessibility: You might have problems obtaining deeded access to your land, but a more likely scenario is that the deeded access will be inconvenient. Gigantic swaths of single-owner farms cut through the landscape here, and all the private property means some areas take longer to reach. Ensure you drive all the necessary routes and see what it takes to get to and from your land before you buy.
Best Regions for Homesteading
Iowa is a relatively flat state. Its most discerning feature is the highly sought-after soil, but there are still some regions with scenic views and quaint vibes.
- Northwest Iowa: Land in northwest Iowa is both the flattest and the most fertile, practically guaranteeing homesteaders a high yield and steady production rates. It is known for dairy farming and corn production, with soy and alfalfa also popular.
- Northeast Iowa: Northeast Iowa is home to gentle hills and fertile soils perfect for row crops. Corn and soybeans reign supreme here, but the area is also known for dairy, smaller family farms, and tourism.
Renewable Energy in Iowa
Check out our guide to Iowa’s off-grid electricity laws to learn more.
How Iowa Homesteads Can Generate Renewable Energy
- Solar: Iowa averages 4.55 hours of peak sunlight daily, making it a solid option for solar energy. Homesteaders can even claim federal solar rebates.
- Wind: Iowa now generates over 50% of its energy from wind. Building a residential system does require considerable permitting and oversight, but wind generation is more than feasible.
- Alternatives: Alternative energy systems, like biomass, may be more accessible here because of Iowa’s large agricultural industry. The state government offers a geothermal exemption, and more incentives may be available at the municipal level.
Water Systems in Iowa
Underground sources make up the bulk of Iowa’s water supply. The water laws aren’t incredibly strict, but it’s vital to research your area to ensure you stay legal.
How Iowa Homesteads Can Obtain Water
- Wells: Iowa has an abundance of aquifers across the state. In most cases, property owners can dig their own wells with the proper permit and oversight.
- Surface water: Live-water properties aren’t incredibly common here, but landowners and adjacent property owners can usually use surface water with few restrictions in a limited capacity.
- Rainwater: Iowa gets between 26” and 38” of rain annually. The government actively encourages harvesting it, with some municipalities offering rainwater collection system rebates.
Waste Systems in Iowa
Iowa sewage disposal laws are stringent. Those who are able usually must connect to the city sewer system, but homesteaders in rural areas have a few alternative waste management options.
How Iowa Homesteads Can Manage Waste
- Septic tanks: Septic systems are the most feasible way to remove waste legally. Permitting and oversight are required, but homeowners can install their own systems in many cases.
- Compost toilets: Iowa law is vague when it comes to compost toilets. It will depend on your situation and the municipality where you’re located, so do your research beforehand.
Garbage Disposal in Iowa
Iowa has more relaxed trash-burning regulations than many states. But while you might be able to burn most yard and household waste, the practice is still frowned upon and prohibited in many municipalities. It’s better to dispose of garbage like a good neighbor and utilize city pickup or rural waste-management companies.
Iowa Natural Disaster Risk
Iowa isn’t a particularly dangerous state for natural disasters, but there is some risk. Due to Iowa’s northern geography and flat topography, the most common natural disasters in Iowa are snowstorms and tornadoes. Flooding can also be an issue as winter snow melts. If you do buy land here, consider the following safety precautions:
Iowa Climate and Weather
Iowa is a northern state with four distinct seasons characterized by mild summers and extreme winters. It lies in the humid mid-continental zone, with January temps diving into the mid-teens and summertime highs rarely reaching above the mid-eighties.
Snow and ice can pose risks in Iowa. Depending on location, snowfall averages range from 18 to 42 inches per year. Spring and summer are often muggy as winter snow melts away, and rainfall averages of over 36 inches per year don’t help.
It’s important to note that temperature averages vary greatly by region. Here are some numbers from locations across the state:
- Winter: 14°–26° F
- Spring: 26°–74° F
- Summer: 55°–86° F
- Fall: 22°–82° F
Agriculture for Iowa Homesteaders
Agriculture is the culture. Iowa boasts over 30 million acres of farmland, encompassing 90% of the state. Here you’ll find laws that heavily favor both large- and small-scale farms, making this one of the most attractive states in the union for homesteaders hoping to raise crops or livestock.
Iowa Growing Zone
Iowa’s USDA hardiness zones range from 4b to 5b, with one minuscule corner of southerly Lee County making it into zone 6a. The northeastern and northwestern parts of the state begin at 4b, with the average temperature rising to zone 5a through most of the state. The southeastern part of Iowa is mostly zone 5b.
Persistent cold weather can make home gardening a bit more challenging here, but it’s a popular activity among residents anyway. The planting season generally begins at the end of March or early April for cold-hearty veggies like spinach, persisting throughout the summer until June or July for warm-weather veggies like tomatoes.
Iowa is fantastic for growing, producing the most corn of any state in the union. Other common row crops include alfalfa, soybeans, and oats. Grape vineyards are becoming more popular across the state, providing exciting potential for homesteaders hoping to get into winemaking.
Of course, you don’t have to grow what everyone else is growing. There are numerous small-scale farms here that focus on organic growing, ornamental flowers, and other plants. The state is particularly great for cool-weather produce like apples or winter squash, and Iowa even offers family farm credits and fruit tree credits for small operations.
Iowa already has a solid agricultural infrastructure and is a great place to raise livestock. Many animals aren’t bothered by the colder weather, and the state ranks number one in the nation for hog farming and egg production. Other common livestock includes cattle, goats, sheep, lambs, and turkeys. Iowan cheese and milk are also popular.
Rules and regulations vary widely for smaller homesteads hoping to raise animals for sustenance or work-related purposes. Like most places, getting animals inside city limits is difficult. However, rural areas are less controlled.
Making Money from Your Iowa Homestead
Those who can make money from their land have a real shot at self-sufficiency. Whether you’re hoping to strike it rich or you’re just looking to earn some cash on the side, Iowa has plenty of opportunities.
Selling Produce and Plants
Iowa has an abundance of seasonal farmer’s markets where residents can sell produce, plants, and certain food products. Anyone can participate, though regulations vary by municipality, and you may need to get a permit from the local courthouse.
Iowa laws allow you to sell fresh, whole vegetables and fruits at the farmer’s market without a license. You can also sell honey, eggs, and cottage foods, such as canned or jarred veggies, that don’t require temperature control.
You’ll need a license to sell cut fruits and wild mushrooms like morels, oysters, and chicken of the woods. If your area doesn’t have a farmer’s market, roadside stands and online outlets are another option.
Selling Livestock and Meat
Iowa allows vendors to sell processed meat, meat-containing foods, and dairy products at farmer’s markets as long as the vendor and processing facility have been inspected and licensed by the appropriate authorities. Homesteaders without access to a large-scale production facility may still qualify for a home-processed food license.
Livestock sales and trades are common in Iowa, and laws surrounding them are generally pretty relaxed. Those hoping to sell animals can participate in public auctions at designated livestock markets with the appropriate license. Additionally, you can sell live animals directly to another person without a license.
Selling Crafts and Homemade Products
In Iowa, anyone selling taxable goods must have a tax permit. While fruits and vegetables sold at farmer’s markets aren’t considered taxable goods, crafts and homemade products are. Fortunately, Iowa makes it easy to obtain a permit and pay taxes online.
There are a plethora of craft shows, seasonal fairs, and flea markets across the state. Explore some options with online groups to see what’s available in your area. The demand for homemade products is high in Iowa, especially during the tourist season. Remember that you must present your tax permit upon entry to any show or fair.
Wind and Solar Land Leases
Iowa has a burgeoning wind and solar energy industry. Companies like MidAmerican Energy pay landowners to lease property for wind turbines, often offering substantial compensation packages. Not all properties qualify, but it could be a great way to supplement income on a larger homestead with plenty of wind or sun.
Hunting in Iowa
Iowans regularly participate in hunting, fishing, and trapping. Popular game animals here include deer, antelope, elk, and moose. You’ll need to go through the Department of Natural Resources to get your fishing and hunting licenses, but the process is inexpensive, and you can do it online.
Homeschooling in Iowa
Homeschooling in Iowa is slightly more regulated than in other states, but parents can also receive more support. There are several options ranging from partial enrollment to completely independent parental instruction. Parents must adhere to homeschooling rules and have children evaluated by the state each year to determine their progress.
Healthcare in Iowa
Iowa has dozens of rural health clinics available to farmers and homesteaders living in remote areas and offers various health insurance options for low-income families. Despite these resources, receiving healthcare can be difficult for many. It’s crucial to research critical access hospitals and primary care options where you intend to live. Establish healthcare relationships as soon as possible to ensure you receive the care you deserve.
With abundant fertile soil and a culture centered around farming, the Hawkeye State can be an excellent option for those looking to live off the land. Now that you know all about homesteading in Iowa, you can start planning the dream and searching for your property today!